By Marilyn Zecher, M.A., CALT
For many students in elementary school, fraction concepts and operations are a major hurdle. New methods of teaching them conflict with the old ideas of simply learning to perform the calculations. When we begin to work with parts of a whole and fractions on a number line, many parents struggle to explain the meaning behind the math because they too were taught procedurally.
A few simple tweaks to the language can help parents help their children. First, we need to communicate that fractions are parts of a whole…whatever that whole might be. We might be thinking of one half an apple or pizza or one half of a sum of money. One half is still one of two equal parts. The emphasis must be on the equal divisions of the whole. One way to help them understand fractions is to have them measure things with a tape measure or use measuring spoons or cups for cooking. Children like building things, and they enjoy eating things they prepare themselves. You can double a brownie recipe, measure for making pancakes, or build a school project with a tape measure. Count the pieces of pizza and name the fractional parts. How many slices can you eat? Can you eat 3/8 of the whole pizza? Or, do you only want 1 of the 1/8 slices?
When working with a number line, help children make equal divisions of the spaces between numbers, and use a large grid number line so they can actually touch each division with a pencil point. Count by fractions of 1/2 to three or four. Name each fraction increment. Demonstrate that numbers can have several names: 2, 4/2, 6/3, and so forth.
Teaching the meaning of the fraction parts and forms is also important. The numerator, or top number, tells how many parts you have. The denominator names the fractional piece based on the divisions of the whole. Be careful not to use the words “how many” to describe both the numerator and denominator. When the same terms (for example, “how many”) are used to describe both numerator and denominator, children may only retain those words and not make the distinction necessary to perform calculations. That can confuse children as they sort out the meaning of the written form. Thus, we find students adding 1/3 and 1/3 to get 2/6.
Finally, help children learn that we add and subtract only like fractions with the same denominator. We multiply by a fraction to take “part” of something, and we divide by a fraction to make many of a fractional quantity. Thus, ½ of $10 is $5. And, 2 divided by 1/8 can mean asking how many 1/8 size pieces of pizza you will get from two pizzas delivered to your door.
Marilyn Zecher is a nationally certified Academic Language Therapist and former classroom/demonstration teacher, Ms. Zecher is a specialist in applying multisensory, Orton-Gillingham-based strategies to a variety of content areas. She trains nationally for The Multisensory Training Institute of the nonprofit Atlantic Seaboard Dyslexia Education Center in Rockville MD and is a part time instructor at Loyola University, Baltimore.
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